The 1990s were something of a golden decade for portrayals of women segueing angstily into middle age, Smirnoff bottle in one hand, self-help book in the other. In 1995, CBS premiered Cybill, a zingy sitcom starring Cybill Shepherd as a twice-divorced actress facing the twilight of her mediocre Hollywood career with the help of her best friend Maryann (Christine Baranski), a fabulously wealthy, comically drunken divorcee. In 1996, Helen Fielding published Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first-person account of a hapless, luckless 30-something who subsists on Chardonnay, Marlboro Lights, and cheese while pratfalling from one public shaming to another. But before either of those, all the way back in 1992, there was Absolutely Fabulous.
The BBC sitcom started life as a skit called “Modern Mother and Daughter” on French and Saunders, a comedy sketch show, with Jennifer Saunders playing a middle-aged woman who acted like a teenager and Dawn French playing her teenage daughter, forced by her mother’s emotional and financial immaturity to be the grown up. This evolved into the first six-episode season of AbFab. It was written by Saunders, who played Edina Monsoon, a needy and pathologically shallow PR professional endlessly making a fool of herself alongside her best friend Patsy (Joanna Lumley), an impossibly glamorous fashion editor who also appeared to be an alcoholic and drug-addicted vagrant. Julia Sawalha now played Edina’s teenage daughter, a frumpy, stolid 16-year-old whose denunciations of her mother (“you’ve been getting dressed for three hours and you still look like a bloated citrus fruit”) became one of the highlights of the show.
At the core of Absolutely Fabulous was a paradox. On the one hand, the show skewered all the societal pressure on women to be desirable, fashionable, and, above all, young. On the other, its comedy was entirely based on audiences finding Edina pathetic, nasty, and redundant. The first-season episode “Fat” revolves around Eddy’s increasingly desperate and ridiculous attempts to lose a large amount of weight in a week; the same season featured “Birthday,” essentially a 30-minute tantrum thrown by Edina over the idea of turning 40. As the show continued, popping up only intermittently between 1996 and 2012 with revivals and Christmas specials and anniversary episodes, Edina only got older, and more desperate. The new film Absolutely Fabulous finds her facing 60 or thereabouts, still falling plastered out of taxis, and sadder than ever. All she ever wanted, she cries, is “to not be fat and old, and to keep the party going.”
The concept of aging incapably has been a recurring theme throughout Saunders’s career. Her earliest comedy act, with French, when the two were in their 20s, was called the Menopause Sisters. In 2001, a season-four episode of AbFab titled “Menopause” revolved around Edina facing career disgrace, Patsy being diagnosed with osteoporosis, and Saffron organizing a menopause support group meeting in Edina’s home to try and make the two face their future with dignity. “My name is Jobo, and I’m happy to be having the menopause, ” one woman declares. “I have hot flushes, and memory loss, and sometimes when I sneeze, I pee.” Patsy raises her hand and counters, “Patsy Stone, I hope you’re wearing thick underpants.” Edina furiously urges everyone to sit on black plastic trash bags so they won’t ruin the furniture. For more than two decades on the air, the show was clear: The prospect of getting old was hilariously mockable; the only thing funnier was refusing to do so.
Absolutely Fabulous the movie is no more substantial in plot than many of the show’s 30-minute episodes. Edina, facing career failure as usual and desperate to sign a new high-profile client, gets word from Patsy that Kate Moss is looking for a new PR person (English-speak for publicist). Edina and Patsy rush to a party where Moss is in attendance, but with her typical clumsiness and maladroit posturing, she accidentally pushes the supermodel into the River Thames. A festival of national mourning begins in Britain, and Edina is arrested for attempted murder. But worse for her than the prospect of going to prison is the fact that she’s suddenly a pariah, “fat and old and hated and nothing.”
In its first 30 minutes or so, Absolutely Fabulous feels like a return to form. The physical comedy of watching Eddy and Patsy, absolutely trollied, tumble down staircases and fall on their faces is always funnier than it should be; meanwhile AbFab is sharper than ever on the vampiric nature of the quest for youth. Waking up, Patsy injects Botox into her face while Edina puts on her makeup. At a party attended by London’s fashion glitterati, bystanders discuss the various anti-aging merits of toddler blood and fetus stem cells. There’s an odd parade of cameos from It Girls, fashion industry names, actual stars, and C-list celebrities: Jourdan Dunn, Lulu, Emma Bunton, Stella McCartney, Gwendoline Christie (“it’s Brienne of Tarth!” Saffron’s daughter exclaims), Jerry Hall, Janette Tough (in one of the film’s more dubious moments, the white actress plays an Asian fashion designer), Jon Hamm, and the perpetual Christopher Biggins.
Then, things go awry. The direction, by Mandie Fletcher, lacks precision, and much of AbFab’s humor feels stuck in the 20th century—jokes about Edina’s granddaughter being more valuable to her because she’s mixed race, gags about having to be nice to transgender people now. Consumption is more conspicuous than ever. Although Edina is, by all accounts, a personal and professional catastrophe, she now lives in a cavernous West London mansion with an indoor pool that feels better suited to an oligarch laundering rubles. Eddy somehow manages to escape to the south of France with Patsy, her granddaughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), and Lola’s credit card, and it’s there that both the movie and its stars are forced to face up to the reality of their circumstances.
One of the most striking scenes comes toward the end, when Eddy and Patsy attend a party on the French Riviera in search of a wealthy pornographer who once promised Patsy she was the only woman he’d ever marry. Inside a hotel, elderly women dance together, laughing, and having genteel fun. Outside, all the assembled men are on the terrace, frantically bobbing their heads to electronic dance music while a group of ravenous-looking Eastern European models prowls around them. Eddy and Patsy, too “young” for the first party, and far too old for the other, have nowhere to go. Society has sidelined them.
Writing for The Spectator recently, Tanya Gold criticized Absolutely Fabulous as a remarkably malicious portrait of female failure. “You never see Eddy doing anything functional,” she writes. “You see only the chaos that she lives in; the fear she has of herself; the self-disgust that is the comic engine of Ab Fab. Eddy loathes her body—its bumps, its excrescences, its leaks—with a terror and commitment which, while no doubt familiar to female viewers who turn to the Daily Mail for similar torment, is pitiless.”
I won’t spoil the movie’s ending, but its twist is surprisingly gratifying. After everything—almost 25 years worth of parties and excoriation and shame and hangovers and never feeling good enough or young enough or thin enough—Eddy and Patsy seem to finally find validation in unexpected quarters. There’s a too-neat, entertainment-mandated deus ex machina quality to it, but there’s also a sense that female friendship and support is what’s kept them going all these years. It would be a tidy way for Absolutely Fabulous to wrap up forever; a glimmer of grace and dignity for the two most degraded fashion victims culture has ever served up. But it won’t be the end, of course. Part of the joy and curse of being a woman aging disgracefully is that the party never stops.